– The Thirty Names of Night

The Thirty Names of Night, by Zeyn Joukhadar. Atria Books, 2020. 304p.

Thirty Names of Night by Zeyn Joukhadar

The Thirty Names of Night is Zeyn Joukhandar’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut novel, The Map of Salt and Stars. In many ways, The Thirty Names of Night feels almost like a companion piece, similarly following the journeys of two narrators across time and space that echo one another in subtle and surprising ways. However, the work that Joukhadar sets out to do in Thirty Names, orchestrating a stunning narrative that examines themes of love, memory, and belief, fully establishes his innovative voice as an author, as well as his fantastic mastery of storytelling.

Set in a modern New York City not entirely unlike our own, Thirty Names’ protagonist, who is nameless, is engaged in a struggle to find the absent parts of themselves and their life following the death of their mother. The specter of their mother’s unrealized aspirations quite literally haunts them, playing out in a surreal and often dreamlike conversation between the narrator and their mother’s spirit, searching for signs that will help them finish her work in proving the existence of a rare bird that the scientific community has dismissed as imaginary. Named Geronticus simurghus in an allusion to a mythical creature from Sufi poetry, the narrator is left with no leads to pursue save for the rumors of a study painted by their mother’s favorite artist, Laila Z. With Laila having long since disappeared without a trace, the narrator tentatively sweeps New York City at night, hiding these inspirations and their artistic gifts – as well as their attempts to navigate their own identity – as graffiti in the cover of darkness.

Fatefully, their discovery of Laila Z.’s lost journal brings her voice into play as the second narrator, and alongside the protagonist, readers will retrace her steps as she longs for her first love, leaves her home in Syria to immigrate to America, and begins the artistic endeavor that will make her famous. Laila’s life enters into a multifaceted exchange of observations and affirmations with the narrator (and readers) living in the present, weaving threads of belief and belonging across the conflicting paths of obligation and ambition.

Zeyn Joukhadar’s work is truly peerless, and while readers of historical fiction and magical realism are sure to enjoy this book, the story (or stories) it contains are likely to appeal to fans across genres. The Thirty Names of Night flows seamlessly as it explores issues of the unknown and unknowable, detailing moments of profound isolation and intimacy that feel amplified into a fantastically epic journey across the lands of love and identity – all rendered in Joukhadar’s absolutely delicious command of prose. Joukhadar’s novel is an intricately beautiful and much-needed experience, a raw and artful depiction of the continued processes of coming of age, especially within bodies and communities that, like G. simurghus, often struggle to be seen.

Haley Petersen is a Library Reference Assistant at May Memorial Public Library. You can contact them at hpetersen@alamancelibraries.org.

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